Honda cars have always been part of Darci Wemple’s business.
Every night, Civics and Accords visit the El Rancho drive-in theater in Palatine Bridge, the cinema Wemple owns with her husband, Bill.
Now, the American Honda Motor Co.’s corporate division is pulling in. The El Rancho is one of 80 U.S. drive-ins the auto manufacturer will feature in its national “Project Drive-in” promotion. The attention could mean a new digital projection system for the outdoor movie theater in Montgomery County — free of charge.
The campaign is designed to raise awareness of difficulties faced by many drive-ins. The El Rancho and other places are still showing movies on film, while many other outdoor and indoor theaters have already made the switch to digital projection equipment. Film is being phased out by distributors in favor of the digital format.
Honda is offering to pay digital conversion costs for five drive-in theaters. People across the nation will vote online for their favorite place — Wemple is hoping for big numbers when the contest begins Aug. 9.
“We put this together as a social media program,” said Alicia Jones, social media manager for Honda in America, based in Torrance, Calif. “We’re trying to help save this icon of Americana and car culture that is the drive-in. There are less than 400 in the nation currently and there used to be like 4,000 of them. Slowly, they’re drifting away.”
Jones said Honda representatives reached out to drive-in owners to compile the list of candidates.
Four other theaters in New York State are in the mix. They are Hathaway’s Drive-in in North Hoosick; the Greenville Drive-in in Greenville; the Finger Lakes Drive-in in Auburn; and the Park 60 Drive-in in Jamestown.
“I think the El Rancho represented rural Americana, the valley, the fields, the farms,” said Wemple, who along with Bill has run the place since 1996.
The El Rancho was built in 1951 and opened in 1952. “It’s never closed,” Wemple said. “The El Rancho has run every single day since its inception.”
The Wemples also own the Ozoner 29 drive-in in Broadalbin, which has two screens. The El Rancho is a single-screen theater. The Wemples eventually will have to replace all three projectors if they want to keep showing movies — and pass down the operations to their children, who are interested in continuing the family business.
Wemple said the total cost will be between $225,000 to $250,000. Winning the Honda promotion will save her about $80,000.
Duane Greenawalt, who owns Hathaway’s, is also looking for savings. He said Honda could save his business.
“If we don’t win one of the five projectors or successfully raise the money through our fundraising efforts, we will not open next spring,” Greenawalt said. “Hathaway’s will close. I can’t afford to buy the projector … the drive-in simply does not make enough money to justify spending that kind of money.”
The Wemples may consider buying used digital equipment, which Darci Wemple said costs between $35,000 and $40,000 per unit. “Sadly, they’re at the end of their shelf life so you really don’t know how long you’re going to get out of them,” she said. “But they’re available to at least keep you in business. As a very last resort, there is used out there.”
Wemple said bank loans are an option for her business, but she said some financial institutions are wary about lending to businesses that operate only during the summer.
end of film
“They’re saying this winter is really going to mark the end of film,” Wemple said. “If you don’t have that kind of projector, it would be like trying to find a place in your digital camera to load film. It’s just an entirely different medium.”
The Wemples can use some good news for their Palatine Bridge business. Recent flood damages in Fort Plain have kept away some customers. Either they’re busy with repairs and renovations, Wemple said, or they just don’t have the extra money for recreation.
“We’re experiencing a twinge of what happened in 2006,” Wemple said, of floods that damaged Canajoharie and Fort Plain during the summer of that year. “It’s not as dramatic a drop-off of customers.”
The 2006 floods in the Mohawk Valley hurt business, and so did the 2011 closing of the Beech-Nut food production plant in Canajoharie.
“It was a double whammy to the area,” Wemple said. “Economically speaking, people are just finding their footings, starting to get a hold of their lives, therefore they are able to spend money again on entertainment, like coming to the drive-in again.”
The El Rancho can accommodate 300 vehicles. Wemple said she will try to gather votes by publicizing the promotion on the El Rancho home page and on her Facebook page. Greenawalt will do the same things.
Jones said people will be able to vote — starting Aug. 9 — at www.projectdrivein.com. Voting will end Sept. 9.
“We’re also trying to get people through this project to continue the effort and donate and support their local drive-ins,” she said.